Now that all is said and done, the Nashville Predators put together one of their most lousy seasons of the last decade in 2019-20.
They came into the season with high expectations after having won the Central Division title for the previous two seasons, as well as the President's Trophy in 2018-19. David Poile had signed free agent Matt Duchene to a massive, multi-year contract in July. The Ryan Johansen-Filip Forsberg-Viktor Arvidsson line, or the JoFA line, seemed poised to continue their offensive domination together after leading the team's forwards in scoring for three straight years. The Preds were set to play in their first outdoor game (the Winter Classic, no less) on New Year's Day against one of their biggest rivals- the Dallas Stars.
Pretty much all of those things turned out to be- in some way, shape, or form- disappointments.
The hunch that maybe the 2019-20 season wasn't going to pan out as visioned for the Preds may have happened first for you when they allowed the Red Wings- who would go on to score the fewest goals of any NHL team and finish with only 17 wins this season- to put up five goals against them, at home, in the second game of the year (which also happened to be the Wings' first game). Maybe it happened one week later when the Kings tallied a whole touchdown on Juuse Saros in the Preds' first away game. It's very likely it could have happened for you on the night of that embarrassing 9-4 loss in Colorado, which tipped off a six-game losing streak that banished the Preds to the bottom of the division. If you somehow still held out hope for a comeback in the standings, Winter Classic probably did you in. Either that, or witnessing Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl find the back of the Nashville net four times on Mar. 2 was all you needed to see to know how 2019-20 was going to end up.
Ultimately, we'll never know if playing out the last 13 games of the season would have helped or hurt the Preds. What we do know is that even if the NHL had opted for a standard, 16-team playoff format to finish out the truncated season, the Preds would have actually made it on their own accord.
There's no set schedule for when the "COVID Playoffs" will begin and the Preds will have to reckon with the sneaky-good Coyotes in a best-of-five series. In the meantime, let's recap 2019-20 and analyze what surprises, disappointments, and met-expectations the Preds provided us this year.
Roman Josi, effectively all on his own, has kept the Predators competitive in 2019-20. The captain has built a season for himself that now has him on the short list for the Norris Trophy. Josi has tallied the most points (65) of his career this season- including a career-record 16 goals and 49 assists in only 69 games. The next highest-scoring Pred is Forsberg... with 48 points. Josi, even as a defenseman, has contributed to more offense than any one of his teammates. His +22 on-ice rating leads the Preds, as do his 6.1 offensive point shares and 4.8 defensive point shares. 10.9 total point shares credited to a single player is a rare, yet exceptional rate; Josi tied with Edmonton's Connor McDavid for the fifth-most PS in the league this season. Josi's PS stands alone as the most among defensemen, with Washington's John Carlson coming in close behind him at 10.7 PS. The captain has averaged the most ice time on the team (excluding the goalies), skating a whopping 25+ minutes per game. Josi has now made it to the NHL All-Star game six years in a row and was Nashville's only representative this season. He stringed together a monster 12-game point streak between December and January, which not only is a franchise record, but also the longest point streak ever recorded by an NHL defenseman. He's made incredible play such a commonplace trait, so it's tough to negotiate Josi's performance this season as a surprise. This season, however, it is more so the fact that Josi has shouldered the shortcomings of the entire team and kept them steady enough to not drop out of the playoffs completely.
Once Peter Laviolette was fired on Jan. 6, it left two of his players to become the focal points of fan frustrations: Kyle Turris and Mikael Granlund. With the trade deadline approaching at the end of February, the two forwards' status as members of the Predators felt very tenuous. The hiring of John Hynes promised new opportunities for everyone, especially so for Turris and Granlund. Turris' numbers did not really improve under Hynes, but Granlund's certainly did. This season, Granlund played in 35 games with Laviolette behind the bench and recorded just six goals and seven assists. After playing 28 games with Hynes, Granlund has racked up 11 goals and five assists- a three-point difference with seven fewer games under his belt with the new coach. Both Turris and Granlund have notched four game-winning goals this season, leading the Preds. Granlund's most memorable goal(s) this season were the buzzer-beater and subsequent overtime goal against Calgary on Feb. 27.
With a significant portion of the Preds' forwards not providing the amount of offense they've been contracted to provide this year, two of the rookies that came in to pick up their underutilized ice time did a lot better than most people predicted. Before Colin Blackwell arrived in Nashville on Dec. 14 to help pick up the slack of an injured Viktor Arvidsson, he had already recorded 23 points in 26 games with the Milwaukee Admirals. In 27 NHL games this season, Blackwell has recorded three goals, seven assists, and a +7 on-ice rating. His first NHL goal happened on Jan. 9 in Chicago, but was unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) overshadowed by Pekka Rinne's goalie goal. He went on a four-game point streak near the end of February, accounting for a goal and four assists. Blackwell's compatriot, Yakov Trenin, has been equally impressive. Trenin has played in six fewer games than Blackwell and, conveniently, has just six fewer points. Trenin's size and level of hustle have been noticeable aspects of his game; he gained leaguewide notoriety after dropping the gloves with Boston's menacing, 6'9, 250-pound captain Zdeno Chara on Jan. 7 in Nashville. Chara threw the most punches, but Trenin made Chara's knees buckle after a sharp right hook to the jaw.
Speaking of that goalie goal- WOW! You can basically count on one hand the amount of singular, feel-good incidents the Preds took part in this season. And man, IS Pekka Rinne's goalie goal one of them. Not only did it occur in a rival team's city, and not only was it the first and only goal of Rinne's 12-year career, it was the first goalie goal the NHL has seen since Mike Smith's in October of 2013. Though it was an empty-netter, the celebration that ensued around the beloved goalie could make even the most sour person smile. Rinne's goal has made it into the top eight entries for the greatest moment of the season on NHL.com and will almost certainly continue to climb.
It was nice that the Preds were able to humble at least one franchise this season, let alone the 2019 Stanley Cup Champions. The Preds swept the four-game season series with St. Louis, outscoring them 13-8 and allowing an average of just 29 shots per game. Any game against the Blues is bound to include its share of scuffles, but no one could have imagined (or asked for) what Robert Bortuzzo did to Viktor Arvidsson on Nov. 23. If there is a remote possibility that you haven't seen it, The Goon Who Has a Ring Now illegaly cross-checked Arvidsson twice, knocked him out of play for a month, and only received a four game suspension. The upside to this story, of course, is that Bortuzzo never got to celebrate a win over the Preds this season.
In hockey, soccer, lacrosse, water polo, or any other sport where the goalie serves as the final defense mechanism against the advancing of the opposition, it is generally accepted that if the goalie happens to fail, it won't entirely be his/her fault. But when the Preds' goaltenders combined for a .894 save percentage in October, then a .878 in November, plus a .883 in December, it became pretty obvious whose play was falling short. Pekka Rinne remains the darling of Preds history, but in 2019-20, he had the worst season of his career. Dipping below a .900 SV%, as well as spiking above three goals-against per game for the first time as an NHL goalie was not only a blow to Rinne himself, but also the team in front of him. Rinne's dropoff effectively signaled that he was ready to abdicate the throne to Juuse Saros; problem is, Saros wasn't doing much better in the first half of the season. In the 2019 part of the season, Saros went 5-12-3- accumulating a .877 SV%, and allowing an average of 2.8 goals per game. Rinne went 8-0-2 in his first 10 starts of the season, but skidded backwards after that. Thankfully, Saros has since bounced back from his autumn woes; he has amassed a 12-7-1 record and a .933 SV % since Jan. 1. Most recently, Saros tallied back-to-back shutouts against Dallas on Mar. 5 and Mar. 7.
David Poile sees this specific Preds team as an investment, and has said so since the 2017 Stanley Cup run. The summer of 2017 rewarded a giant, eight-year, $64 million deal to center Ryan Johansen as well as a seven-year, $29.75 million deal to Viktor Arvidsson. For two guys who earned about 15 percent of the team's total income this season, they sure didn't perform as expected. Johansen has played in all but one game with the Preds this season but has notched a mere 36 points and -5 rating. Points wise, 2019-20 has been Johansen's worst season since his rookie run in 2011-12. He also hasn't recorded a negative on-ice rating since 2014-15, when he was still with Columbus. Arvidsson might be eligible for a little bit of a break on his performance this season; though he hasn't required any additional time off, the November injury he sustained at the hands of Robert Bortuzzo could very well still be nagging him. Arvidsson has 28 points and a -4 rating in 57 games- his worst offensive total since his rookie season in 2015-16. The most confounding aspect of Arvidsson's 2019-20 season is that he played in just one additional game in 2018-19, but was nonetheless able to break the franchise record for single-season goals in those 58 games. The slumped play of two of Nashville's highest-paid forwards unquestionably contributed to the team's slumped position in the standings. The JoFA line had been one of the NHL's most dominant lines prior to the 2019-20 season, but with Johansen and Arvidsson unable to keep up with Filip Forsberg's consistency, JoFA's longevity took on a short lease.
"Disappointed, but not surprised" is the best way to characterize the Jan. 6 firing of Peter Laviolette. Laviolette was entering into his sixth year as head coach of the Preds back in October- one season more than he'd spent coaching any other team. His first coaching tenure was with the Islanders and lasted for two years. His next two tenures- with Carolina, then Philadelphia- lasted five seasons each (he only got three games into his fifth season with Philly). Laviolette had gotten the Preds further into the playoffs they'd ever been in 2017, lead them to two straight Central Division titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19, and recorded three 100+ point seasons. It became apparent during last year's playoff loss to Dallas that Lavi had begun to lose the room; this year, it was fatally obvious. Under Lavi this season, the Preds were unable to string together more than one 3+ game win streak. Five days prior to his canning, the Preds had given up four unanswered goals in the franchise's first outdoor game, laying bare the problems inside the locker room that Lavi was clearly unable to fix.
If you're a Stars fan, the 2020 Winter Classic was likely one of the best hockey games you'd ever witnessed. For Preds fans, however, the first period was just about the only one worth watching. Matt Duchene got the Preds on the board first, scoring the franchise's first outdoor goal in their 22-year history. Rookie Dante Fabbro followed with a goal of his own- the fifth of his young career- and suddenly the Preds were up by two in front of about 85,000 spectators (which, by the way, set the record for the second-most attended game in NHL history). Ryan Ellis was injured early in the game, but seeing Corey Perry have to complete the Walk of Shame back to the locker room after being ejected for the hit on Ellis was truly a delight. After that, everything hit the fan. In the third period, Dallas took a two-goal lead in a matter of 90 seconds with Andrej Sekera sneaking his first of the season past Pekka Rinne. Even having left Texas with an embarrassing loss, the sight and sound of hearing 25,000 Preds fans yell "YOU SUCK" at an away game was particularly rewarding.
Matt Duchene sure started his first season as a Predator on a strong note. In the first five games of the season, Duchene had already notched nine points- three of which came on Oct. 3's season opener against Minnesota. On Oct. 24, Duchene left the game with a reported lower-body injury but returned just a few days later on Oct. 29. Something had clearly changed, though. Before his injury, Duchene had racked up 11 points in 10 games. 56 games after returning from injury, Duchene finished the 2019-20 season having accrued just 31 additional points. To his credit, Duchene still ranks third on the team in total points this season, but 42 points is not good enough for a guy who's making more money than almost his entire team (you too, Ryan Johansen). It's a bad look when the two forwards who each make $8 million per year are unable to outscore a defenseman.
Eeli Tolvanen was once again cut from Preds' training camp last September, but unlike last year and the year before that, he never appeared in an NHL game in 2019-20. For the Preds' organization and fans, it might be time to at least somewhat release the notion that Tolvanen is going to be the team's next Mikael Granlund. He did have a fine season in Milwaukee; in 63 games, he had 21 goals, 15 assists, and only took nine penalties the entire year. But even when Viktor Arvidsson got injured in November and Poile was forced to align a carousel of forwards to replace him, Tolvanen was not one of them. Still, he's only 21. Colin Blackwell is six years older than Tolvanen and just now finished his rookie season in Nashville. Tolvanen will remain under contract with the Preds until the summer of 2021; whether it happens now or later, Poile is going to have to decide if he'd like to see Tolvanen crack the roster in 2020-21 or if he's ready to swap him out for other assets.
In 2019-20, Filip Forsberg recorded his worst point total since his rookie 2013-14 season. His 21 goals are the least he's ever scored (in seasons he's played more than 20 games) in a single season, and his -7 rating is the worst outside of his rookie year. This all makes it sound like Forsberg should be classified as a Disappointment for 2019-20 season. Here's the thing, though- Forsberg also ranks second on the team in points and offensive point shares, leads the team in goals, and averages the second-most ice time among the team's forwards. So, Forsberg is definitely not having the hottest season of his career, but it's also relative to how the Preds are performing in general. He was the only arm of the JoFA line that stayed on its expected level this season, which caused Forsberg to lose the linemates he depended on to create offense. Being paired up with Duchene on a forward line seemed to work out fine for Forsberg, seeing as they rank third and second, respectively, in points. And hey, that lacrosse goal was really something else.
By the hair on their chins, the Preds made it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Well, at least before the NHL announced a 24-team format would decide this year's champion. As of the season pause on Mar. 12, the Preds (78 points) had just hurdled the Wild Card cutoff with a single-point advantage over Minnesota (77). Vancouver shares the same point total as the Preds, but they have a single additional regulation win, putting them ahead of Nashville in the league standings. It's hard to imagine that the same team that won consecutive division titles last year and the year before would have had to fight tooth-and-nail for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, but here we are. Turns out, the bullets that Preds' fans sweat over the thought of missing the playoffs were hardly necessary. With the 24-team plan taking effect, every team in the Central Division wound up making the playoffs.